Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’

I have been thinking about the role of metre in poetry in preparation for 3 evening sessions I have been asked to teach for the Poetry School in London. The sessions are part of a wide-ranging course on some of the basics of poetry (other parts of it will be taught by Tim Dooley, Judy Brown, Claire Crowther and Matthew Caley). Also, last Saturday I attended the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in Red Lion Square, London. There – apart from spending too much money on poetry books and chatting with people who had come from all over the country – I listened to a discussion about the role of poetry in relation to politics. Fiona Moore chaired a discussion involving Choman Hardi, Bill Herbert, Sophie Mayer and R A Villanueva. Ideas put forward included the delicate issue of ‘using’ the experience of others in political poetry as well as the need to work polyvalently or collaboratively to combat the influence of unquestioned language and form. Herbert quoted W S Graham’s line: “What is the language using us for?” At the confluence of these two biographical moments I found myself thinking of Tony Harrison’s solutions to the poetry/politics issue – in part through his use of formal metre. The following discussion of Harrison’s Iraq War poem, ‘A Cold Coming’, originally appeared in book form in Tony Harrison: Loiner (Clarendon Press, 1997), edited by Sandie Byrne.

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Harrison has declared his commitment to metrical verse because “it’s associated with the heart beat, with the sexual instinct, with all those physical rhythms which go on despite the moments when you feel suicidal”. In conversation with Richard Hoggart, he explains that without the rhythmical formality of poetry he would be less able to confront, without losing hope, his favoured themes of death, time and social injustice. “That rhythmical thing is like a life-support system. It means I feel I can go closer to the fire, deeper into the darkness . . . I know I have this rhythm to carry me to the other side”.

There are few of Harrison’s poems that go closer to the fire than the second of his Gulf War poems, ‘A Cold Coming’. Its initial stimulus, reproduced on the cover of the original Bloodaxe pamphlet, was a photograph by Kenneth Jarecke in The Observer. The picture graphically showed the charred head of an Iraqi soldier leaning through the windscreen of his burned-out truck which had been hit by Allied Forces in the infamous ‘turkey-shoot’ as Saddam’s forces retreated from Kuwait City. In the poem, Harrison makes the Iraqi himself speak both with a brutal self-recognition (“a skull half roast, half bone”) as well as a scornful envy of three American soldiers who were reported to have banked their sperm for posterity before the war began (hence, with a scatological nod to Eliot, the title of the poem). There are undoubtedly echoes in the Iraqi’s speech of the hooligan alter ego in the poemV’, yet Harrison worries little over any narrow authenticity of voice in this case, and he does triumphantly pull off the balancing act between the reader’s emotional engagement with this fierce personal voice and a more universalising portrayal of  a victim of modern warfare. Furthermore, it is Harrison’s establishment and then variation of the poem’s metrical “life-support system” that enables him to achieve this balance, to complete a poem which weighs in against Adorno’s view that lyric poetry has become an impossibility in the shadow of this century’s brutality.

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The poem’s form – rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets – seems in itself chosen with restraint in mind, as if the photographic evidence of the horror lying in front of him led Harrison to opt for a particularly firm rhythmical base “to carry [him] to the other side”. Indeed, the opening five stanzas are remarkable in their regularity with only a brief reversed foot in the fourth line foreshadowing the more erratic energies soon to be released by the Iraqi soldier’s speech:

 

I saw the charred Iraqi lean

towards me from bomb-blasted screen,

 

his windscreen wiper like a pen

ready to write down thoughts for men.

 

The instant the Iraqi’s voice breaks in, the metre is under threat. Each of his first four stanzas opens with trochaic imperatives or questions and at one point he asks if the “gadget” Harrison has (apparently a tape-recorder but a transparent image of poetry itself) has the power to record “words from such scorched vocal chords”. Apart from the drumming of stresses in lines such as this, Harrison deploys sibilance, the alliteration of g’s and d’s, followed by an horrific mumbling of m’s to suggest the charred figure’s effortful speech in the first moments of the encounter. Regularity is re-established the moment the tape-recorder’s mike is held “closer to the crumbling bone” and there is a strong sense of release from the dead man’s initial aggressive button-holing as his voice (and the verse) now speeds away:

 

I read the news of three wise men

who left their sperm in nitrogen,

 

three foes of ours, three wise Marines,

with sample flasks and magazines . . .

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In the stanzas that follow the dead man’s angry, envious sarcasm is controlled within the bounds of the form and it is rather Harrison’s rhymes which provide much of the kick: God/wad, Kuwait/procreate, fate/ejaculate, high tech’s/sex. It is only when the man demands that Harrison/the reader imagines him in a sexual embrace with his wife back home in Baghdad that the metrical propulsion again begins to fail. It is in moments such as this that the difficult emotional work in the poem is to be done. This is our identification with these ghastly remains, with the enemy, and it is as if the difficulty of it brings the verse juddering and gasping to an incomplete line with “the image of me beside my wife / closely clasped creating life . . .”

The difficulty of this moment is further attested to by the way the whole poem turns its back upon it. Harrison inserts a parenthetical section, preoccupied not with the empathic effort the dead Iraqi has asked for but with chilly, ironic deliberations on “the sperm in one ejaculation”. Yet all is not well, since this section stumbles and hesitates metrically as if Harrison himself (or rather the persona he has adopted in the poem) is half-conscious of retreating into safe, calculative and ratiocinative processes. Eventually, a conclusion yields itself up, but it is once again the metrical change of gear into smooth regularity (my italics below) that suggests this is a false, defensive even cynical avoidance of the difficult issues raised by the charred body in the photograph:

 

Whichever way Death seems outflanked

by one tube of cold bloblings banked.

 

Poor bloblings, maybe you’ve been blessed

with, of all fates possible, the best

 

according to Sophocles i.e.

‘the best of fates is not to be’

 

a philosophy that’s maybe bleak

for any but an ancient Greek . . .

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That this is the way to read this passage is confirmed by the renewed aggression of the Iraqi soldier who hears these thoughts and stops the recorder with a thundering of alliterative stresses: “I never thought life futile, fool! // Though all Hell began to drop / I never wanted life to stop”. What follows is the Iraqi soldier’s longest and most impassioned speech, by turns a plea for attention and a sarcastic commentary on the collusion of the media whose behaviour will not “help peace in future ages”. Particular mention is given to the “true to bold-type-setting Sun” and, as can be seen from such a phrase, Harrison once more allows particular moments of anger and high emotion to burst through the fluid metrical surface like jagged rocks. There is also a sudden increase in feminine rhyme endings in this section which serves to give a barely-caged impression, as if the voice is trembling on the verge of bursting its metrical limits and racing across the page. This impression is further reinforced in the series of imperatives – again in the form of snapping trochees at the opening of several stanzas – that form the climax to this section of the poem:

 

Lie that you saw me and I smiled

to see the soldier hug his child.

 

Lie and pretend that I excuse

my bombing by B52s.

 

The final ten stanzas culminate in a fine example of the way in which Harrison manipulates metrical form to good effect. In a kind of atheistic religious insight, the “cold spunk” so carefully preserved becomes a promise, or perhaps an eternal teasing reminder, of the moment when “the World renounces War”. However, emphasis falls far more heavily on the seemingly insatiable hunger of the present for destruction because of the way Harrison rhythmically clogs the penultimate stanza, bringing it almost to a complete halt. The frozen semen is “a bottled Bethlehem of this come- /curdling Cruise/Scud-cursed millennium”. Yet, as we have seen, Harrison understands the need to come through “to the other side” of such horrors and the final stanza does shakily re-establish the form (though the final line opens with two weak stresses and does not close). However, any naive understanding of the poet’s comments about coming through the fire can be firmly dismissed. This is not the place for any sentimental or rational synthetic solution. Simply, we are returned to the charred face whose painful, personal testament this poem has managed to encompass and movingly dramatise but without losing its form, thus ensuring a simultaneous sense of the universality of its art and message:

 

I went. I pressed REWIND and PLAY

and I heard the charred man say:

 

The Poetry of Tom Rawling

In the early 1980s I arrived in Oxford as a self-absorbed post-graduate and promptly sought out student poets wherever I could find them. The group I joined was then (I think) meeting in rooms in Hertford College, opposite the Bodleian Library (and happily very close to the Kings Arms). Bill (W N) Herbert was there, as was Keith Jebb and Paul Mountain. The group, with changing personnel – I remember Elise Paschen was a member for a while – continued to meet throughout my 4 year stint among the dribbling spires, but we would supplement it by decamping to the Old Fire Station on George Street where Tom Rawling was running a public workshop. Tom had taken over when Anne Stevenson moved north. As a retired headmaster, Tom ran us all as a well organised and disciplined class. Elizabeth Garret joined later and I think Peter Forbes was already a member, as was Helen Kidd. Jeremy Round, who was soon to achieve short-lived fame for his cookery writing, was also a regular. My poem ‘In Memory of Jeremy Round’ (eventually published in Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990) https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/beneath-tremendous-rain-1990/) is a lament for his tragic early death, but also tries to paint a vivid picture of the workshop and its members:

We’d wrangle inconclusively

between the beers and crossfire from Tom,

elder statesman who’d slip quietly glittering

poems from his tackle bag like fish; from Helen,

whose pages always seemed typed under earthquake

conditions, whose baggy poems had more passion

than most of us could muster; from Peter’s

exactitude, schooled on a diet of science, he held

each piece like a prism till it shed eloquent

rainbows; from Bill and Keith, the ferocious

tyros, the university wits, who minced nothing

but their language into strange sweet things;

from Paul whose poems were amazed not to find

themselves loosed into a more graceful age

than the one we live in.

There were others writers, of course, to whom I apologise for not recalling them clearly. Bill has also written about these few years with great eloquence and insight: http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk/poets/herbert/dec_2.htm.

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But rather than his aspiring students, it’s Tom Rawling’s own poetry that I want to highlight. A pamphlet called A Sort of Killing appeared in 1978 (an historical event now as this was one of the first publications by a young Neil Astley). OUP published Ghosts at My Back (1982). Two other books followed: The Old Showfield (Taxus, 1984) and The Names of the Sea-Trout (Littlewood Arc, 1993).

Grevel Lindop has long been a fan of Tom’s work (http://grevel.co.uk/poetry/tom-rawling-rediscovering-ennerdales-poet/). There is an audio recording of Tom reading many of his best poems (you can listen to one of them here: http://listenupnorth.typepad.com/listenupnorth/tom-rawling-poet.html). Listening to him again, what what comes over is his modesty, his sharp intelligence, his confidence in his own work and the vivid recall he had of his formative years, growing up in Ennerdale, Cumbria. Tom’s poems, in their accessibility, boldness with language, natural and ecological themes are (as my review concludes) ideal for the classroom and it is still a cherished hope of mine that they might be taken up by a mainstream publisher and presented to a new generation (a Rosemary Tonks of the western valleys of Cumbria, wielding his fly-fishing rod). Perhaps the best way to sing my praise of Tom’s work is to post up a review I wrote of his posthumous collection How Hall (2009).

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I recommend you search out more of his work (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Rawling). Here is my review:

Tom Rawling, How Hall: Poems and Memories, a passion for Ennerdale (Lamplugh and District Heritage Society, 2009), £7.50, ISBN 978-0-9547482-1-0

Tom Rawling, How Hall: selected poems of Ennerdale poet Tom Rawling, read by the author (Lamplugh and District Heritage Society, 2009), £5, CD audio recording

As a child in the 1920s, Tom Rawling grew up in the Ennerdale valley in what was then called Cumberland. It was not until his retirement in the shallow decades of the 1970s and ‘80s that he began to write poetry as a man “haunted . . . even bullied by his memories” as Anne Stevenson’s insightful introduction to this new selection explains. A marvellous collection was published by OUP in 1982 and two further publications from smaller presses resulted, but at his death in 1996 Rawling had not attracted the kind of attention he had hoped for and certainly deserved.

How Hall is a new edition of more than 70 poems, three pieces of autobiographical prose and some wonderfully evocative photographs. The accompanying CD is an audio recording of an extended reading given in 1983 and the passion and precision of his voice and his humble and insightful comments add further invaluable dimensions to any appreciation of his work. Rawling shares with Heaney the kind of vivid recall of childhood that yielded the title of his first book, Ghosts at My Back. An early poem has the young Rawling playing “squire” to the village blacksmith who also introduced him to his life-long passion, fishing – both are described as “tying knots / That didn’t slip” (‘Johnny’). Yet home life was not always so easy and there are poems that bitterly lament the repressed and repressive life of his mother (‘Hands’), his father’s drinking (‘Honour thy Father and thy Mother’) and the son’s rebellious, divisive “radical words” (‘Clipping Day’).

His rebellion took him away from home, but ironically it is for the authenticity of Rawling’s responses to the farm life and countryside of the Ennerdale of his youth that we should continue to read him. Perhaps it has taken us 25 years to understand what he felt intuitively, the importance of our relationships with the natural world and the kind of folklore that once bound man and nature together. Even in the 1920s, it was only Rawling’s grandmother who “glimpsed beyond the byre” to the atavistic fertility beliefs that lay behind “ritual no longer understood” (‘Grandmother’); it was she who knew the spell to complete a whistle carved from hedgerow sycamore (‘Sap-Whistle’). ‘The Barn’ vividly evokes the thrill of the hay harvest: “Bright prongs pierced and unpicked, ash handles / bent, they launched the bundles we embraced” and as the barn filled it was only when “heads bumped the slates / we came down the ladder in triumph”.

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Anne Stevenson – who met Rawling in Oxford in the late 1970s – rightly directs us not to dismiss his work as “romantic retrospection” because he really “wrote poems to tell the truth and in them rehearsed the daily rituals of life and death”. ‘Rumbutter’ characteristically revels in that recipe’s “sweet beginning” as well as, “not quite hidden, the cinnamon / of the coming funeral feast”.  There is certainly no room for sentimentality in Rawling’s view of nature: a pig is to be cared for only till the “pole-axe fell” (‘Hooks in the Ceiling’) and chickens are nurtured carefully, but in their “due season, each neck pulled / . . . the admired knack of killing” (‘Feathers’). Rawling also shares with Heaney a fascination with the insights embedded in idiom and dialect. ‘Hearthwords’ addresses the younger Irish poet with their shared belief that “the naming spell / gives the thing itself / into our hands” And then, as his own poetry began to flow, he swiftly developed a precise, lean, direct form of free verse, capable of moving from the joyous observations of “cloud and sun pursu[ing] / Their steeplechase across the land (‘I Am What I Was’) to the shockingly frank recording of the realities of the cow shed: “ a column of piss / cascades to the cobbles . . . a face gurning, whistling and whispering soft farts” (‘Privy’).

But Rawling’s reach is not confined to the material. Perhaps his most distinctive poems are those that deal with angling, especially fly-fishing for salmon and sea-trout which his poems transform into an almost religious questing and testing of the individual’s devotion, skill and subterfuge. His own first encounter with the power of the sea-trout he recalled as a moment when he had “waded / into mystery, tampered with Leviathan” (‘Leviathan’). One function of any poem is to offer us profound if vicarious experiences and these poems succeed so well in this evocation, taking us to the riverside at night, “to the dub / where sea-trout rest” where we might “hear an old ewe’s husky cough, / the water slopping, slapping” (‘Night Fisherman’).

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Poem after poem makes it clear that to fish in this way is to engage differently, intimately with the world and to embark on the difficult process of laying aside our humanity’s hobbling self-consciousness, to cast off the accretions of civilisation until we allow “the body [to] flow into the rod” (‘Torridge Salmon’), achieving a different form of consciousness as we “wade in deeper, / Share with the fish / Its lateral line / The current’s push” (‘Only the Body’). It’s easy to understand why Ted Hughes came to admire these poems as Rawling triumphantly celebrates the efforts and occasions when we encounter the Other in what becomes a frankly spiritual communion. So in ‘A Shared Rod’, a kingfisher perches on the “bamboo rod-tip” as the angler waits in the reed bed:

His great eye turns, a moment’s stare,

then, blue-green whirr,

the arrow skims downstream,

leaving an emptied space,

a shared rod quivering.

It is really this kind of encounter – with all that is not bounded by ourselves – that Rawling is conjuring in ‘The Names of the Sea-Trout’, a spell for fishermen that revises and revivifies his grandmother’s superstitious connections with the natural world:

Bender of steel, the breaker, the smasher,

The strong wench, the cartwheeler,

The curve of the world,

She who doesn’t want to surrender,

The desired, the sweet one.

Profound, vivid, honest, accessible – these are poems that at once connect us to a lost past and prepare us for a world in which the environment must again become our close companion. Rawling’s work would be wonderful to teach in schools if it were more easily available and a mainstream publisher would do well to bring him nearer centre stage. For the time being we must thank Michael Baron, Stan Buck and the Lamplugh and District Heritage Society for the very many pleasures of this marvellous book.

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